Reconciliation in the Post-Civil War North: A Perspective on Today

 

Boston, Mass.:  Boston Garden, Edward Everett & One Man Band 4/25/13
Boston, Mass.: Boston Garden, Edward Everett Hale & One Man Band 4/25/13

           In 1871, 51-year-old former US Rep. Clement L. Vallandigham (D-OH) was in Lebanon, Ohio, to defend in a murder case.

           Vallandigham’s case depended on persuading the jury the victim might have killed himself. Rehearsing his argument in his hotel room, he pulled his pistol to show how that might have happened.

           The gun fired; the bullet entered his abdomen; he died the next day.  Had it existed, Vallandigham’s death would have qualified for a Darwin Award.

           Large segments of his fellow citizens in the North wouldn’t have mourned his passing.  In the light of his actions during the Civil War, they’d have seen it as deserved, suitably tainting to his memory, too long in coming.

           Reconciliation following the Civil War took a long time.  Like that in several marriages I know of, it was more formal than heartfelt.  What we are seeing in capitals throughout the country is the disintegration of that reconciliation as old battles over the scope of government are renewed, like old infidelities revived.

In his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln described the national condition when he took office:

Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.

 Those words make me shudder.  For we seem to be in the same posture as in 1860.

           How the next reconciliation will occur is anybody’s guess.

 ***

           Vallandigham, Rick Beard points out in an essay on the New York Times superb Civil War blog, ‘Disunion’, was the leading Peace Democrat.  Called ‘Copperheads’ by their opponents, Peace Democrats are remembered, if at all, for wanting reunion with the South at any price.  That understates the complexity of their position. Says Beard:

 On Jan. 14, 1863, Vallandigham, now a lame duck, used his final speech in the House of Representatives to catalog Copperhead grievances. “It was the persistent and determined agitation in the free States of the question of abolishing slavery,” he argued, “that forced a collision of arms.” Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation meant that “war for the Negro” had “openly begun” in a nation where the violations of civil liberties had created “one of the worst despotisms on earth.” The war had brought nothing but “defeat, debt, taxation” and “sepulchres.”

 …Vallandigham discerned a plot by Eastern financial interests to prolong the conflict. “Let not Wall Street,” he exclaimed, “imagine that it shall have power enough or wealth enough to stand in the way of reunion through peace.” Vallandigham went so far as to raise the specter of a potential split within the Union. “If you of the East, who have found this war against the South, and for the negro, gratifying to your hate, or profitable to your purse, will continue it,” be prepared for “eternal divorce between the West and the East.”

 Vallandigham closed with a second warning. If peace and the work of reunion did not begin immediately, “I see nothing before us but universal political and social revolution, anarchy, and bloodshed, compared with which, the Reign of Terror in France was a merciful visitation.”

           In Vallandigham, one hears the Jacksonians who preceded him and the southern populists and Tea Partiers who followed him.  His cause may have been new, but his social and economic grievances were at least as old as the country.

***

           Vallandigham had declared in his 1862 campaign he stood for: ‘The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was.’ 

           Ponder the power in those phrases.  The broad themes in ‘Lincoln’, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner gor right.  The Constitution had to be changed; the Union must never be as it was.  And, Lincoln knew he had only a moment in which to change both.

 ***

           The American Civil War was not simply between North and South, Blue and Gray, Abolitionists and Slavers.  ‘Lincoln’ accurately shows Northerners who backed the Union had different, sometimes differing, objectives in victory, as I discussed the other day.

           Many, if not most, Northerners who supported the Union in this war of Southern aggression, were indifferent to slavery, as was Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s Democratic opponent for Illinois’s US Senate seat in 1858 and for President in 1860.  He wholeheartedly supported the man who defeated him for President in the months before his death in June 1861.

          Like the Revolution, the War of Rebellion saw ferocious wars at home.  ‘Neighbor vs. Neighbor’ a recent ‘Disunion’ post headlined T.R.C. Hutton’s essay on Kentucky’s own civil war – a war without heroes but with many victims.

           Abijah Gilbert, a former Kentucky state senator, a prosperous slaveholding farmer and a small entrepreneur, lost everything as a consequence both of supporting the Union and at its forces’ hands for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

           Gilbert’s story wasn’t unique.

 ***

           ‘Copperheads’ – their enemies’ term for Peace Democrats – are the only vipers found commonly in the warmer parts of the Union.  They are most associated with the southern thirds of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois – the parts served by the northern tributaries of the Ohio River.

          Like the Democrats on the Ohio’s southern tributaries, they were Scots-Irish or northern English in ancestry and fierce Jacksonians in politics.

           For what that meant in practise, take a look at ‘Today Foreshadowed:  The Confederate VP on Federal Spending’.  There, you’ll encounter Alexander H. Stevens, a ‘Fire Eater’, a third type of pre-Civil War Democrat who advocated the advancement of slavery.

 ***

           Acting under martial law, Lincoln pressed and imprisoned Copperheads.  In 1863, Vallandigham became the first and only American citizen to be exiled.

           The same year, Edward Everett Hale, published ‘The Man Without a Country’ whose Vallandigham-like protagonist showed more regret at his treason and exile than Vallandigham ever did.  It was required reading for as long as the Civil War remained vivid.

           Union soldiers and Peace Democrats found many occasions to fight each other.  Unionist civilians harassed their Copperhead neighbors and burnt down their newspapers.

           One of those newspapers, in northwestern Ohio, belonged to my father’s grandfather, George Kinder.

 ***

           My father’s other grandfather, Thomas Duncan, was an enlisted man in a Pennsylvania regiment.  He was twice captured and paroled.  Paroled POWs gave their word they would not fight again against their captors.

           My great grandfather had the good fortune to be captured the second time in 1863 shortly before Gettysburg.  When paroled, this time from Libby Prison in Richmond he’d lost all his teeth due to malnutrition.  He observed the terms of his second parole.

           He had opposed Emancipation, a view never hidden within the family.

 ***

          After the War’s end, both great grandfathers became successful, respected figures in small towns 250 miles apart on opposite borders of Ohio.  Both remained ardent Democrats in counties that are today as they were in the post-Civil War era predominantly Republican.  Both lived long, fruitful lives.

           The Copperhead published a newspaper south of Toldeo and, late in life, served several terms as county treasurer.  A Democrat regularly re-elected by Republicans.  The Union veteran became a lawyer across the Ohio from Wheeling, West Virginia.  He was revered for his devotion to reaching amicable settlements.

           For eleven years, until Duncan’s death in 1911, they were brothers-in-law.  I’ve seen no pictures of my grandparents’ wedding where they might have met.  In my hearing, my grandfather who died in 1970 – blessed to the end with a superb mind and a raconteur’s memory – never mentioned contact between the two men.

           Is there anything in the lives of these brothers-in-law that illuminates the great reconciliation in the post-War years?  It’s too late to find out.  I knew all the facts long before my Grandfather died.  But the question never crossed my mind.

 ***

           The marriage between children whose fathers took different routes in the North seems a part of the great post-War reconciliation.  But I discern hints in my recollections of family tales – especially the silences – that relations between my grandfather and his father-in-law were colored by the War.

           Vallandigham, ‘The Man Without a Country’, and my great grandfather made disunion personal for me.

           But Vallandigham had returned to the North well before the War’s end in 1865 and resumed his political – probably treasonous – path.  Lincoln, in a move of genius, left him undisturbed, unprosecuted – an involuntary example of the victor’s magnanimity, if not forgiveness.

           From today’s perspective, the impulses – honorable in their living context – of Douglas and Vallandigham for ‘The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was’ seem tragic efforts to paper over still unresolvable sectional conflicts.

           The approach of next weekend’s unity speeches and wreath-laying reminds me that seven states have already observed Confederate Memorial Day or as it’s known in Texas, Confederate Heroes Day.

          We are a nation reconciled in the most limited sense, if in fact we are at all.

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